Saturday, March 13, 2010

Chase Over the Moor: Following the Footsteps & Tracking Texts of Beatrice Chase

 Sun it out; Spring is round the corner. Time to think of exploration and of trips out finding dream-sites on Dartmoor; and of paper chases; or, rather, tor and textual chases after the infamous Dartmoor based writer Beatrice Chase, who has always both  eluded and irritated me. I did once try to get to grips with her - to establish what kind of person and writer she was - and wrote Triune, in which she appears. Other than that, I have mostly avoided her. Aunts used to talk about her, mostly emphasising her eccentricity. They all remembered her from the twenties through to the forties, when a  picnic trip to Widecombe in the Moor, where she lived at nearby Venton, inevitably meant seeing her at her infamous Dartmoor window.

The reason for my slight antagonism towards Chase came from finding in Women Against the Vote that at the beginning of the C20 she was one of the handful of women writers who were anti-suffragist. Having been of my baby-boomers generation, staunchly feminist in inclination, this left me slightly irritable. Added to that, on the infrequent times I have tried to read the few books of hers that are easily obtainable, their archaic style and wordiness and oddities have put me off. It may be a hasty judgement, but as yet I have not been able to take her work too seriously.

However, there is no doubting the moor's influence on Chase. It is at the heart of her best known work Heart of the Moor (1914). In it, Dartmoor is the source of Chase’s interior vision. It is a magnet; it compels; it is her muse. Once she had moved to the folds of the moor, the writer stayed there for the rest of her life, living and breathing its essence and writing a series of Dartmoor inspired books, including Through a Dartmoor Window. 'Moor' became for her an archetypal mother-goddess earth presence, a source of mystical mystery and awe. Given the contemporary fascination with alternative spiritualites and healing perhaps it is surprising that modern readers have tended to view Chase as an eccentric and her books as outmoded. Beneath the sugary, rather archaic surface of her texts, the words still speak of the eternal, ethereal presence of the moor.

Here is a little extract typical of her style; it gives the flavour of Chase's writing and comes from Pages of Peace, which was published in 1920 and can be read online:

This will be a winter book. It is now the heart of the winter, and everyone who visits Dartmoor when she is clothed to her chin in her seal-brown robe of dead heather, loves her more in that guise than in any other. One of the winter joys are the lunches with certain beloved pilgrims at the Old Inn. On the morning when someone is expected, I rush through my mail to be free at noon when they arrive swathed to their eyes in fur. First, there is a delighted run round Venton, a peep into the room of shadow and of sunshine a glimpse through the Dartmoor window at the winter glories of the Moor, the visit to the White Chapel with its love-red Rose Lamp and then we dash away to the Old Inn for the cosiest of meals in the dear little familiar room with its huge log fire and its air of utter peace and seclusion.
... So I took a day out this week; meanwhile had found by chance, just after I decided to blog Beatrice, (or Olive, which was her real name) that she moved down to the moor a little over one hundred years ago - probably in 1902. Her home, at Venton, was just south-east of the village of Widecombe in the Moor, and Rugglestone Inn was between the two. Chase was the same generation as Mary Patricia Willcocks, who also, during part of her life, lived near and wrote about the moor. But I imagine Chase to have been a very different sort of person and writer; for one reason, Willcocks was sympathetic to  female emancipation; for another, she was a much more gifted and multifaceted writer. However, Chase, (or 'My Lady of the Moor' which was the title bestowed on her, in a novel, by John Oxenham), had the notoriety of being cast as eccentric, and in her later life, recluse. She campaigned vigorously for Dartmoor's preservation and took to her grave the legacy of one or two unsolved  'mysteries', which still have the capacity to interest and engage a variety of people, giving the moor-lover an excuse to take time out on the moors; there, one can be child again, finding her magical moor-nooks and crannies, climbing a selection of tors, paper-chasing her favourite sites.

Like other people of her generation Chase thought nothing of walking miles and miles, and knew the moor like the back of her hand by the time she wrote Heart of the Moor,  in which she mentions a secret experience, a 'vision of white'. which happened to her on 'Bellever Tor, the 'central tor of Dartmoor - the core of the heart of the moor'.  She adds that 'Only one who ever reads this book will understand the meaning of this ... and I doubt if even he knows that he alone holds, and always will hold, my heart in the hollow of his hand'.

 Another enigma  is  the whereabouts of Chase's specially named 'Dream Tor', which she mentions several times in Heart of the Moor. There she
 'lays full length on the dry turf at the tor's feet listening ... for vibrations of the countless forms of life that she [moor] bears within her', can 'watch for the first swallows' and 'listen for the first cuckoo'. But, she continues,
 'The tor's real name is not of course, Dream Tor, or anything like it. I call it that, because it is my favourite home tor: on it I have seen my sublimest visions, dreamt my divinest dreams. It is not marked upon any Ordnance map, thank heaven, and no tourist ever comes near it from year's end to year's end'.

 You can find more about the tor, a description and suggested/probably location on the legendary Dartmoor site.

We missed eating at Rugglestone, Chase's favourite pub, but trekked to both Wind Tor (picture above) and Top Tor on our day out exploring her scenic-sites.   
However, we did not come up with any definitive solution as to which was the location of her 'dream-site'. What did strike me on this clearest, sunniest and bluest-sky day, was how right Chase was when she said:

 'moor round my Dream Tor is clothed in the robe of gold and purple, intermixed with the blue-gray of many boulders and scarlet of whortleberry .... this vividly embroidered foreground against the sombre ... severity of the wine dark distance ... I wonder if there is any land which surpasses Dartmoor for brightness and depths of colour'.

For, on this early March day the intensity of dream on the moor is everywhere; there is no one magical tor, but the energy of the wilderness is captured in its amazing dream-coat colours. And today, the olives, russetts, browns, golds, greens and whites of the early season are set off by the startling black tonal mood that pervades the place: Dartmoor ponies, galloway cattle, dark-snake of the Dart, thickets of gorse-stubble, and coiffs of black smoke from ongoing swaling: air is heavy.

But we are not. This is Spring air. Everything is in renewal. We watch distant figures on several tors determinedly reach the top-most rock, reach high, rise, lift their bodies as if kites and outstretch their arms so they can send out this eternal moor's secret message, like semaphore.

Beatrice Chase's grave is in Widecombe churchyard: it is well worth a visit, if nothing else to see the Spring vista of moor swirling up from the flower-filled churchyard; on my visit snowdrops and crocuses dappled the corners under budding trees. A lone bee floated over the heather that surrounded the grave.

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